ST. PETERSBURG — The 8-year-old tennis dynamo slices balls through the air with a strength and determination that belies her young age and is more characteristic of a much older and skilled player. Nazaria “Zee” Bell has been playing tennis since the age of 4 years old.
Zee is a rambunctious and active child. Her grandfather Frezell Roux remembers he was watching tennis champion Serena Williams on TV and Zee started running around teasing her grandfather saying, “You can’t catch me.” He decided to channel that energy and took her down to the St. Petersburg Tennis Center located at 650 18th Ave. S., St. Petersburg.
“She seemed like a natural,” said Roux, owner of Frezell Upholstery Repair. “One time she cut her finger and sprained her leg but she still wanted to play. She doesn’t whine or get tired. She doesn’t like to lose and she won’t give up.”
It was at the center that Zee met her first coach, Shikha Singh, who continues to privately coach her today. At that time there was a program for inner city youth at risk called “First Serve” and Zee joined.
“Her grandfather is the architect,” Singh said of Roux. “His passion is contagious.”
Singh feels that Zee will be underestimated, but will always come out on top. “At first glance they will dismiss her,” he stated. “She is not from the usual socioeconomic background, nor does she look the same, and she has different challenges. Anytime I’ve presented her a task or goal she has completed it. She truly loves tennis and she has a quiet intensity.”
Under the US Tennis Association, Zee has competed in the Rogy, Junior Event, and Team Tennis Competitions. Singh thinks if she continues on this level of play that she will qualify for the many tennis scholarships that a lot of minorities are not aware of.
Singh, who is originally from India, won a tennis scholarship at Eckerd College before training children at the St. Petersburg Tennis Center, so he is well aware of the opportunities that lie ahead for the precocious eight year old.
“I like it [tennis] because it’s a good sport with some running in it,” Zee said with a wide grin. “You also have to be a good sport and shake the other person’s hand.”
The second grader from Westgate Elementary School also said with a giggle that she really doesn’t like losing. At the courts she has learned how to volley, forehand, backhand and how to slice or top spin the ball.
The St. Petersburg Tennis Center owned by the city and leased to the Tennis Foundation of St. Petersburg, has been on 18th Avenue South since 1920. According to Steve Hill, director of the facility, there is a misconception that the tennis center is private, which it is not. He explained that the center serves many kids through their scholarship, grants, and personal benefactors including Couriers Kids, The Racquettes, a group of ladies who have been playing for over 50 years, Tom James of Raymond James and Paul Doc Thompson.
Reaching out to local churches and organizations, Hill aims to reintroduce the center and inform the public that the facility is open to the community all are welcomed. He said there are 45 kids from the Alfred Adler Elementary School half on full scholarships, and 8-10 students from Academy Prep on full scholarship.
Hill also said that homework and tutor assistance is available. “We want to reach kids interest in tennis but also to get assistance for what they need in school,” he stated. He stated that when Zee first came to the center she could not read, but after assistance she won the Jim Courier 2013-14 Award that was based on attendance, grades and overall character.
Jim Courier, the center’s main benefactor, places great emphasis on instilling education, character and responsibility.
As director of the facility, Hill is proud of the center and his entire staff, notably Coach David Despard who is one of the top training coaches for the ages of 10 and under in the state.
“She has come a mighty long way,” said her grandfather. “I taught her to be nice, respectful and have self-esteem, and that she was already a winner before tennis. If she puts her mind to it she can go as far as she wants to go.”
“If you practice a lot you’ll get better,” Zee shared. “Always try and not quit.”